Art Imitates Art

In the late 1970's I  was part of an artist group in New York called Artists Meeting for Cultural Change and as part of that group was invited to visit The People's Republic of China. We went to look at what was being billed as the "revolutionary" art of China, which at that time consisted of the Husien Peasant painters. These paintings were made by ordinary people who painted cartoon like depiction's of the progress of the Chinese workers revolution on the walls of their houses in the countryside.

It was an exciting and arduous trip, if a little restricted. We felt that we were being shown a highly controlled view of China, much of it "through the bus window" as we came to view it. We were artists and we wanted to see contemporary art and meet artists. Instead, we found ourselves being dragged around dusty museums of ancient artifacts and antiques and constantly being propagandized. When we demanded to meet and speak with actual living artists we were introduced to the same two elderly Chinese painters we met in just the previous month at an exhibition of Chinese art at the Brooklyn Museum.  After more negotiations and discussions things began to open up and we were finally allowed to talk with practicing artists, albeit under highly supervised conditions.

Today all that has changed. Now, thousands of visitors freely tour China and meet and speak to whomever they wish, practically without restrictions, and there are many intellectual and cultural exchanges. (Sometimes a little too free, as the recent allegations of Chinese theft of American nuclear secrets has proved.)

One of the highlights of our 1978 trip was a visit to the Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute, (SERI)  China's most famous center of embroidery.  We were impressed with the technical expertise of the work and the astonishing amount of effort and time required to complete an image.  I remember specifically the several huge half finished embroideries of Mao whose smiling likeness and statue was everywhere. Kittens were the other favorite subject.

As fellow "Art workers" we had many questions about the lives and working conditions for the entirely female staff of embroiderers all of whom seemed very young. What happened to older workers whose failing eyesight couldn't keep up with the almost microscopic needlework required. It was January and quite cold in the unheated room. How was it that only covered cups of tea were used to keep freezing fingers warm enough to hold the hair-like needles. As was usual we were given reassuring answers by the local representatives, but we wondered.

Eight years later, Robert Glenn Ketchum visited Suzhou and with the help of Dr. He Shanan, Director of the Nanjing Botanical Garden managed to convince Zhang Meifang, the institutes current director, to begin a project to create embroideries based on Ketchum's photographs. This was no small accomplishment.  It marked the first time the institute had agreed to use the work of an artist outside of China. "Threads of Light: Chinese Embroidery from Suzhou and the Photography of Robert Glenn Ketchum" on exhibition  at UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History is the result of this collaboration.  The exhibition presents 30 works from the institute and pairs 13 of Ketchum's landscapes with their embroidered counterparts.

In China as is the case in other countries, even America in the last century,  fancy stitch work has long been the purview of refined ladies. Girls from both less advantaged  and wealthy families learned embroidery to decorate articles of daily use, such as pillowcases, bedding, shoes and trousseau items in order to demonstrate their worth to prospective husbands and in-laws. The quality of work was a measure of a young woman's general abilities and provided an estimation of her virtue. Skilled embroiderers were deemed highly desirable.  In Suzhou, famous for its silk and an important center for embroidery since the 11th century,  a talented embroiderer  is accorded great respect.

At SERI where the embroiderers are all women, they are regarded as akin to artists whose skills extend beyond technique and can add an important creative dimension to the interpretation of an artist's work. Some of them study for as long as ten years to gain proficiency in their craft.

Because a project may take many years to complete, each assignment that SERI undertakes is considered very selectively with regard to merit, difficulty,  and creative challenge, and the embroidery workers are given some say in this process. Ketchum's intricate images of leaves and trees and grasses required the development of new approaches, special stitching, and formidable  effort, apparently giving some of them pause. SERI Director,  Zhang Meifang describes how an embroiderer wept when she was assigned one of Ketchum's pieces, complaining that it was too difficult.  The worker was later praised for her accomplishment and willingness to overcome obstacles.

In the catalog accompanying the exhibition Zhang says, "The process of pursuing something is painful --just as it was with Robert's photos. In the beginning we weren't willing to do them, it was just like climbing  a mountain.  But when you climb to the top of a mountain, you have a kind of feeling that you've never had before."  That also might be said of looking at these wondrous works. It's hard not to be acutely aware of the intensity of the labor that went into their fabrication.  It's almost as though they are labor made visible.

In looking at these images and comparing them to Ketchum's photographic twins, one marvels not only at the indescribable effect of each tiny, exquisitely tinted, perfectly visible thread, but at the amazing duplication of color and shape and form. The finished fabrications give the photographs a dimension and depth that reinterpret and comment upon the original works. That they are beautiful is perhaps secondary to the fact that they are extraordinary.

The Art in Life

Today we know the words "ethnic cleansing" because of what we read in the newspapers about Bosnia and Kosovo, but there have been many other such catastrophes. In the winter of 1688 a part of Germany known as the Palatinate in the Rhine Pfalz area was invaded by Louis XIV's son. The population was ordered to leave many of the villages and their homes were set on fire.  Some of the survivors of this  calamity made their way to a place in the "New World" founded by a Quaker religionist, William Penn. Penn was setting up a new province based on the then radical idea of civil and religious liberty.  There was to be no state church. Word quickly spread back to Germany that Pennsylvania was a place of religious freedom and a flow of settlers began populating Philadelphia and the surrounding counties of Berks, Lebanon, Lehigh and Northampton. They came to escape religious persecution and the ravages of war. In 1898 an historian wrote, "The crimes committed in the Palatinate, in consequence of religious intolerance, fanaticism, and political persecution, are unparalleled in the history of human savagery. They make the blackest pages in the history of the whole world."

The people who came to the new land were Anabaptists, dissidents whose beliefs in non-infant baptism made them victims of intolerance and extermination. Known as "plain sect" there are today many off shoots and divisions of the early Anabaptist groups including the Amish, the Beachy Amish, the Mennonites, Reformed Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, the Schwenkfelders, the Moravians, the Pietist, and others. While there are differences among them, they share a belief in the strict acceptance of Christ's teachings and in simplicity of dress, life, and custom and most importantly, a common German dialect. They do not go to war. They have as little to do with government as possible. Custom and church rule the greater part of their lives. Everyday life is strictly ordered, with varying degrees of dress codes depending on the sect. Amish women wear long skirts, and black bonnets, the men black hats and hair in length "at least halfway below the ear tops." All is nondecorative and changeless from century to century. In the homes there are no pictures, portraits or photographs.

Later groups of German immigrants populated the surrounding counties of Lancaster, Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, Carbon, York, Dauphin, Snyder, Schuykill, Northumberland and Mifflin. With significant diversity they continue to share a homogeneity of language and custom. George Tice moved to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania when he was in grade school. His mother had convinced his stepfather that he might find some financial prosperity as a barn painter. It didn't work out. "Johnny wasn't a salesman,"  says Tice. He couldn't convince the Amish and Mennonite farmers that spraying their barn roofs with aluminum paint might be an improvement.  The Tice family house trailer was once again hitched to the truck and they moved on, but the Lancaster experience had left an indelible impression on young George. He had fallen in love. With no chance to even say good-bye, twelve year old Tice considered ways to escape and return, but didn't.  Ten years later, now grown and earning his living as a home-portrait photographer for a New Jersey studio, he came back, camera in hand.

"Fields of Peace" is the body of work that resulted.  Over a nine year (1960-1969) period, Tice intermittently pursued a project to photograph the area of Landcaster, Berks, and Mifflin Counties. Making  occasional weekend excursions alone or with a photographer friend, or on assignment from Time-Life, Tice chose to avoid in his photographs the infringements of twentieth century life. He says, "I wanted my photographs to be timeless, like Edward S. Curtis' monumental work on the American Indians."

Tice's precise way of seeing, singular composition, and meticulous workmanship meet the measure of his ambition, but perhaps like the work of Curtis, they show a somewhat romanticized version of experience. His depiction of the plain sects in Pennsylvania record a life seemingly untouched by modern strife, yet recent news articles tell of drug arrests among several young men from the sects. To be sure these images were made in the 1960's, and according to Tice who revisited Landcaster in 1990, there have been changes both in manner of dress (sneakers and sunglasses) and in such things as the use of safety reflectors on horse drawn buggies and ten-speed bicycles.  It is probably more difficult to photograph in the area now than it was then. Consciousness of the power of photography and the use of images is common knowledge even among the most sheltered groups, and many are far more wary of the intrusions of photography. In this regard the young Tice arrived at a moment of innocence on both sides, but in the words of a Mennonite minister, "When a man's ways please the Lord, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him."  While his photographs have the appearance of being made in another century, they have been crafted to sanctify the lives he records.

Quotes for this article are from the catalog  of Threads of Light, Chinese Embroidery from Suzhou and the Photography of Robert Glenn Ketchum, published by UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, and Fields of Peace, A Pennsylvania German Album, published by David R. Godine.

Photometro, Volume 16, Issue 155, 1998 A.M. Rousseau
 Picture captions:  Amish Girl, Lancaster, PA, 1968,  George Tice .

Pale Leaves in Blue Fog, Random stitch embroidery and Suzhou fine style embroidery, 1996, Silk thread on silk and synthetic blend, 60 x 80 cm., Robert Glenn Ketchum   Photo by Don Cole

"The Beginning of Time," Random stitch embroidery, Silk thread and watercolor on silk gauze, Standing screen. Robert Glenn Ketchum 1996